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Using Distribution Studies



Although Ireland is a very small country when compared to Canada, The United States, or Australia, it is still very difficult to find information about your Irish ancestors if you do not know the exact place in Ireland from which they came. The question "Where?" in Ireland can be a confusing one since there are many levels of organization and types of jurisdiction. For the sake of genealogical research, the goal is to get down to the "townland" of residence, but there are many useful levels of organization above that one.

The first division of Ireland is into the four provinces, Ulster, Connaught, Leinster and Munster. Many centuries ago there was a fifth province, "Meath" that was eventually absorbed by the others, though there remain traces of the name in two counties "Meath" and "Westmeath". The division of the provinces into the 32 counties can be found on almost any map of Ireland. Many researchers know or suspect the county of origin for their Irish ancestors. This information is useful, but not adequate to find a particular individual in most Irish records.

The next common level of organization for Ireland are the baronies. There were approximately 325 baronies, though the exact number varied through time. Most baronies are included wholly within one county, though a few cross county borders. These baronies are of particular historic interest, since they often follow boundaries established in pre-Norman times, when they usually were the holdings of one family group, or sept (often labeled "clans" though different from Scottish clans). Some of these baronies retained the traditional Gaelic name, which sometimes includes the name of the sept or family, but more often is descriptive of some feature of the geography.

In the 1800's about 130 Poor Law Unions were organized for administration of England's Poor Laws in Ireland. These largely ignore county and barony borders, but are usually centered on a market town, and include adjacent rural areas. Some of the original Poor Law Unions were subsequently divided, but there were never more than 150 or so Poor Law Unions. They are often named for the central market town they surround.

For the genealogist, the most used divisions are often ecclesiastical. There were 28 diocese in pre-protestant Ireland. There were minor changes to diocesean boundaries since the Reformation, but these divisions are of little practical use to genealogists. More important are the parishes. There were about 2774 Catholic parishes. In some areas the protestant parishes kept the same boundaries and often even the names of their Catholic predecessors. In other areas boundaries and/or names were changed, adding greatly to the confusion in Irish place names, since now one must ask "Catholic or Protestant?" when given a parish name. Since the protestant Church of Ireland was the official church, those are the parish names that occur in official records. When dealing with Catholic church records, the Catholic parish name is used. It is not unusual for the parish to bear the name of the townland where the church is located, and in those cases the name may change when a new building is erected, giving rise to parishes with different names at different times. American Catholic parishes are usually named for saints, with the church building dedicated to that saint. Irish Catholic parishes, on the other hand, tend to have geographic names (though in cities they sometimes bear the names of saints), though the church building (usually called a chapel) is still dedicated to a particular saint.

The most important division, and the goal for every genealogist, is the townland. Townlands vary greatly in size, but average about 300 acres. In early times they were the holdings of a single person and his spouse, though by the mid 1800's most averaged five or six occupants with their families. There are about 64000 townlands in Ireland.

So how do you locate the place of origin for your Irish ancestor? If you already know the county you have a good start, but you really need at least the parish and preferably the townland before approaching most Irish records. This information may be recorded almost anywhere, but experience suggests that some sources are more likely than others to contain the desired details.

If you have not traced your family back to the immigrant ancestor, then by all means that is the first goal. You must know the name of the immigrant, and preferably also his or her parent's names, before the Irish records can do you any good. It is useless to try searching down from someone who just happens to have the right surname--you must start with the known and work back to the unknown.

If there is a printed genealogy for your family, then that is the place to start. Often such genealogies supply the desired place name of the sought after townland, though at times it has been greatly distorted through time. In other cases a printed genealogy may have clues that help pinpoint a location, such as birthplaces for spouses married in Ireland, or stories that may only fit one area. Certain occupations (other than farmers) were restricted to certain areas where the means for that occupation existed.

The best source of information for the place of origin for an immigrant seems to be the printed obituaries from newspapers, when those can be found. Biographical sketches in county or town histories are also very good sources.

If your ancestor was a fairly recent immigrant, since 1860 or so, your cousins may very well know the origin place of your immigrant ancestor. Usually, someone in the past 50 or 60 years has prepared a one or two page "family history" that may include the desired information. Of course if your immigrant ancestor came earlier, you probably have more cousins to contact, but since they are further from the original immigrant they tend to be less helpful. Try any cousins you can find though - you may get lucky.

If your ancestor was protestant, old Bible records can often be found which may include the place of origin. Catholics of a century ago rarely kept Bible records. If your ancestor was Quaker, or one of the other "dissenting" sects, church records may indicate their transfer from an Irish group or parish.

More than other ethnic groups, (but still rarely), the Irish included their exact place of origin on their tombstones. Try to locate the burial place for your immigrant ancestor, and check the epitaph.

The first deed for land purchased in the new country may also mention the place of origin. This seems to occur more frequently in the 18th century than the 19th, but is seen occasionally in even more recent times. Try to locate the first land record for the newly arrived immigrant, later ones will more likely give a local residence.

If your ancestor came to the new country and immediately moved to an obscure rural community, one must question how they chose that place to live. You can be sure it was not a random choice. Many factors can influence such a decision, but often it is the presence of relatives, friends or neighbors from the old country that lead an immigrant to choose a particular area. Read local history books for the area. Did most of the Irish immigrants come from a particular province? County? Look at the names of people who appear as witnesses, sponsors, executors, guardians, etc., on documents relating to the family in the new country. Check for their place of origin if it is mentioned in local histories or records. Do many come from one area? Take note of any such clues, even if you can not at first offer any proof that your ancestors came from those areas. This information, perhaps complemented with a distribution study (explained below) might just save you years of research in the Irish records attempting to locate the correct family.

The more thorough your research on people in their new homelands, the better your odds of finding details that suggest a place of origin in Ireland. I have seen census records that cite a county in Ireland as the birthplace for Americans, and cemetery records that give the county or even town of birth. But sometimes, even after extensive searching, your records will not yield anything more specific than the county, or even worse, just Ireland, as the place of origin.

If all of these sources fail to yield the exact place of origin for your immigrant ancestor, then the best alternative is usually to begin working with name distribution studies, based on Griffith's Valuation, to narrow down the field of research before you begin checking other Irish records. The single exception to this occurs if your immigrant ancestor, or his or her parent whose name you have, would have been in Ireland, and the head of a household at the time of Griffith's Valuation (1848 - 1864). In that case you should look for that individual himself in Griffith's. Since it took 16 years to complete Griffith's valuation, and during that time many people were forced to emigrate by the famine and subsequent economic conditions, it is often impossible to be certain the target person was still in Ireland when his or her area was evaluated. For those who left earlier, or during the Valuation, a distribution study may be the next step indicated.

The effectiveness of distribution studies for names depends on two factors - how common or rare the name is in Ireland, and the time period during which the target immigrant left Ireland. Also of importance in some cases is the number and nature of related kin names you have identified, especially spouses married prior to emigration. Only Griffith's Valuation provides a reliable source for name distribution studies, since other sources are either much less comprehensive, or much more recent.

Griffith's Valuation was a survey made by the government after passage of the Poor Relief Act of 1838. This act provided for a special tax to support the poor in a local area, and the survey was to determine the amount of tax each person was to pay. Ireland was divided into "Poor Law Unions," with the occupants of each Union responsible for the upkeep of their own poor. These Poor Law Unions were formed without regard to existing political or ecclesiastical boundaries, further complicating Irish geographic nomenclature. About 164 Poor Law Unions were formed in Ireland, each generally centered on a market town and including most of the townlands within a ten mile radius of that town. Often the Poor Law Union bears the name of the market town as well.

Between 1848 and 1864, all of the property in each Union was evaluated to provide a basis for equitable taxation. In the process, the evaluators listed the person holding the land, whether by lease (i.e. a tenant) or "in fee" (i.e. they owned it) as well as the "immediate lessor". The immediate lessor would usually be the owner, although sometimes it is a middleman who held a lease to the property and sublet to tenants. Also listed is a brief description of the property, the amount of land (in acres, rods and perches), the exact location (townland) and the annual rent value of the land and any buildings (in pounds, shillings, pence).

The full report of Griffith's Valuation was published in a set of over 200 volumes under the title "Griffith's Primary Valuation of Rateable Property in Ireland, 1848 - 1864". This set is available on microfilm at the LDS (Mormon) Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, or through one of their many branch libraries.

The genealogical value of this information is obvious. Like a head of household census, Griffith's lists most heads of household for the years of the valuation. Only those who were very poor and rented no property, some who worked on great estates, or shared a residence with many others (where only one would be listed), would have been missed, such as residents in the poor house that was behind the valuation in the first place. Once a likely prospect has been located in the valuation, church and land records can be consulted to determine if that person is indeed the one sought, since the listing will identify the townland the person occupies.

In the 1960's, the National Library of Ireland prepared a surname index to Griffith's Valuation. For each county that index shows each surname and how often it is cited in each barony, and the same information for each parish within each barony. As a bonus, the index also shows if the name occurred in that barony or parish in the Tithe Applotment Book for the area, though it does not list the frequency of occurrences in the Tithe Books. The Tithe Applotment is similar to Griffith's, but a little earlier - 1823 - 1837. It was undertaken to determine tithes due to support the church. Unlike Griffith's, city property was not included, so only agricultural residents are listed (the vast majority of people in Ireland in those days were farmers, so this isn't often a major problem). Coverage in the Tithe Books is more variable, in many cases only the landlords are listed.

But what if your ancestor left Ireland prior to Griffith's Valuation? Still, Griffith's Valuation, and especially the Index to Griffith's, can be used to help you narrow the search area for your ancestor. Just how useful it is for this purpose depends on what you already know about the family and how common the name you are searching is in Ireland.

Historically, the Irish have been very stable geographically. The tenant farmer, tied to the land, usually stayed in one locality generation after generation. When large families made it necessary that some should seek out new property to farm, the favored alternative was to find property nearby so as to remain close to kith and kin. If land couldn't be found (or afforded) nearby, then opportunity was more often sought abroad or in the cities than in other rural parts of Ireland.

An example might help to demonstrate how stable Irish families can be. Consider for example the surname Slattery. In Irish historical works we read that the Slattery's were a Dalcassian sept, originally from County Clare, though they moved to south central Tipperary very early in recorded history. Early recorded history for Ireland would be about 1000 AD. Both Clare and Tipperary Counties are in the province of Munster, southwestern Ireland. Looking at the Index to Griffith's Valuation, we find that some 800 or more years after this sept moved to Tipperary, they were still far more numerous in that county than in any other. For the four provinces, 85% of all citations (709) to Slattery in the index were from Munster, 9% from Leinster, 6% from Connaught, and only one citation, or 1/7th of 1% from Ulster.

An even clearer example may be found in the uncommon name Morrisroe. There are only 34 listings for Morrisroe in all of Ireland, and 33 of those are found in just four adjoining parishes along the Mayo/Sligo/Roscommon border.

This situation is not unusual for names of Irish origins. For names of Norman or Anglo-Saxon origins, the situation is usually more complex since they often settled in more than one part of Ireland, but still they tend to be found concentrated in some areas and scarce or entirely absent from others.

For the researcher then, a distribution study of any particular surname can be used to prioritize research. It can also be useful as general background information for a family history, showing how common or scarce, widespread or restricted, the name is in Ireland.

Sometimes a surname distribution study will yield some real surprises. For example, a recent study of the surname Huntley failed to locate even one citation for that spelling in Griffith's! Two variant spellings were found, but only one citation to each - a Huntly in County Kilkenny and a Hundley in County Sligo. If ones Huntley ancestor left Ireland after Griffith's then one of these would likely be the desired family.

When the distribution is this small however, it is difficult to judge where the family may have come from if they left Ireland prior to Griffith's Valuation. Perhaps the whole family left an area, leaving no one of that surname. Even in this case though, some useful information has been garnered--you know that if you find a record of the correct name and time period for your Huntley ancestor in Ireland, it is very likely the correct person, rather than someone coincidentally of the same name.

There are two general types of distribution studies possible using Griffith's index. One is a study showing the frequency with which a surname is cited in each of Ireland's 32 counties. This gives a good overview, and helps determine if the name is localized or widespread.

Some have suggested that these distributions should compare the frequency of the name with the total population figure, to get an idea how prominent a family was in any area. While that would indicate the relative prominence of the family compared to others, it has no bearing on the probability a particular ancestor came from that area. Consider an exaggerated example. Suppose there were 1000 Murphy families in County Carlow, the least populous Irish county with about 1% of the population, and 1000 Murphy families in County Cork, the most populous Irish county with almost 10% of the population. The odds of any particular Murphy coming from one of those two counties is equal, 50/50 -- regardless of the fact that the Murphy name is ten times more prominent in County Carlow.

The second type of distribution shows how often the name is cited in each parish. There are about 2500 parishes in Ireland, so it is usually not practical to do this type of study for the entire country. If the county of origin is known for an ancestor, however, this kind of study for one county can be very useful.

A parish by parish distribution study can be especially useful when you know both names for a couple who were married prior to emigrating. Except among the wealthy, most Irish found their mates nearby--often from the same parish or an adjoining one. Comparing the distributions for two names within a county will often limit the area you need to search to just one or two parishes (depending how common the names of course). Once you know where to search, local parish records can be consulted.

When we compare the frequencies for two surnames, we multiply the frequency of each for any parish that contains both names, and rank them accordingly. One might ask why multiply the frequencies, rather than add them together. Again, an exaggerated example will demonstrate the logic. Suppose all the Murphy families in the county are in two parishes, 99 of them in parish A and 50 in parish B. Likewise, all the Kelly families are in the same two parishes, with only one in parish A and 50 in parish B. Now imagine each family has one son and one daughter, and they each marry someone from another family in the parish. Parish A, with 99 Murphy families and 1 Kelly family will have mostly Murphy marriages, and rarely a Kelly/Murphy marriage. But in parish B about half of all marriages will be a Kelly/Murphy marriage. Yet if we add the frequencies together when comparing Kelly and Murphy, we would get a score of 100 for each parish. Multiply the frequencies and we get 99 for parish A, and 2500 for parish B, which more accurately reflects the relative probability of a marriage occuring between the two families.

When comparing two surnames there would be some slight advantage to take into consideration the prominence of the names within the area, since that reflects the relative abundance of potential spouses of other surnames. We don't think this extra information is likely to make much of a difference though, and so use raw frequencies.

Distribution studies are not a panacea, but wisely used they may save you a lot of work. When used as general background information, they are always interesting. Now that studies are available at minimal cost, you might want to have one done even if you already know the exact place of origin for your ancestor -- knowing where other members of the family lived can help fill in the "big picture" for you.

Remember that distribution studies will not give you the exact place of origin for your ancestors, they will only tell you which places are most likely, so that you can prioritize further research.


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